tv [untitled] May 19, 2012 8:00am-8:30am EDT
captioning performed by vitac > after 30 years of space flight and 130 missions the space shuttle program has come to an end. this spring, the shuttles were pg brought to their new retirement homes. now based at the space center. next on "american history tv "we revisit the space program's earliest days as we hear from mercury 7 astronaut scott carpenter, one of america's first men in space. he was interviewed as part of the nasa johnson space center oral history project. this interview was conducted in 1999 by roy neal, longtime nbc news reporter and correspondent, who covered the american manned space program. it's a little over 50 minutes.
you ready to go, scott? >> let's go. >> you were born near colorado. anything that that background that led to your becoming an astronaut? >> not that i can think of skeptical coal mots. >> from there you went down to low country, meeving the navy. right down to sea level. why navy? >> well i was a naval aviate. but how in the world i got an affection for the deep blue ocean, having grown up in the high country of colorado, i don't know. i've pondered that question a lot and can't answer it for you. >> there is an evolution there, nonetheless though, because i see in your background, test pilot school, intelligence schools. all of these that led up to your being selected as an astronaut. can you describe that training and how you think it might have played off into that eventual choice?
>> curiosity is a thread that goes through all of my activity. i've been curious. i've also been frightened by the deep ocean. i wanted, number one, to learn about it. but number two, i wanted to get rid of what i felt was an unreason the fear of deep water. i was also inspired. by what cousteau had done. i saw a use for nasa technology in ocean technology and first proposed to cousteau that i come and share technology with his program. he said, well, we could use your experience, but you don't speak the right language, and we can't pay you very much, but he said, if you want to the share technology with the ocean, do it with your own united states navy, and that's how it happened. >> that's, of course, what
happened after you had been an astronaut. so let's come back to that if we may, scott. right now, let's go back to the origins and relate if we can that naval background and the deep sea, the ocean if you will, into the oceans of space. >> okay. i can do that with -- by recounting one episode that revealed to me an un-reasoned fear of the ocean. i flew big airplanes with a large crew out of hawaii early in my navy career. we were doing a survival exercise in which we had to manage ourselves in two life rafts on deep, dark, blue water. we lost overboard from the raft i was in, a corner reflector, which is the most important piece of equipment you've got on a raft in a real survival situation. it is the thing the radar will
pick up and guide rescue your direction. it went overboard, and i thought of trying to get it, but i was afraid of the sharks and the critters in that water, and i didn't do it, but my gunners made, without a second thought, jumped overboard, was gone for a long time, but he swam down and got that corner reflector and brought it back up, and i thought, there is a brave man, and it made me ashamed of myself. that was the genesis of my need to conquer my fear of the deep ocean. it's an important thing. conquering a fear is one of life's greatest pleasures, and it can be done a lot of different places. >> and so you made application with that other ocean, space. eventually, you're named to the space task group. must have been quite a thrill to be named to that elite group, or
was it? >> sure. the greatest thrill of my life. . aimed to be part of the crew that would do this unheard of thing, and a thing that would banish so many unknowns. it's food for curiosity. >> well, you were with a rather distinguished group. could we take them one by one and kind of look at them through your eyes? let's say just for the sake of discussion, john glenn. >> he and i bonded immediately. who can -- who can describe the reasons for bonding? i used to have a great deal of respect for him. we had a lot of interests in common. there were three air force fellows in the group. we used to kid each other about
not caring much for one another, but we all recognized that we were on the same side. this isn't cold war time. they were, all of them, highly qualified professionals, and i have the highest respect for every one of them. i was just more bonded with john than any of the others because of common interests. >> how about gus grissom? >> a true professional. didn't have a lot to say, but when he said something, it was always worth listening to. >> wally schirra? >> the joker. he doesn't like to be called the joker, but he is a great high jinx fellow. you know? and he added a lot of levity to everything we did. and that was very valuable. >> how about deke slayton?
>> deke, probably the most dedicated single-minded professional test pilot of the group. he was more dedicated to airplanes in general and how they worked i think than any other fellow in the group. >> alan shepard? >> born leader. came to the program with -- with a lot of experience and a lot of talent. and it showed up in his choice as the first spaceman in this country. >> how about scott carpenter? how would you see him fitting into that group? >> i leave that to others. >> very good. you had early assignments in "mercury." do you remember what they were? >> communications and navigation and that's as a result of my
experience at the naval air test center with equipment and techniques that had to do with earth observation and photography and communications. >> did those specialties pay off for you a little later in the program, communication, navigation? >> well, if those -- those sciences, if you will, were the ones that i was directed to follow. so i had a background that was helpful in the tasks that were assigned to me by nasa. >> what were some of the earlier assignments in "mercury"? >> making sure that the communications equipment worked well. these -- and the navigation techniques were adequate to the task.
these were just the small tasks that i was given to -- to monitor solo. but -- and each of us had certain tasks for which they were responsible. we all had a lot of tasks to do together. >> not the least of which was the assignment of being cap coms around the world during the early flights when astronauts could only talk to astronauts. where were you, for example, during -- well, let's start at beginning with alan shepard and then with john glenn. where were you? >> for al's flight, wally and i in keeping with an old air force edwards, as a matter of fact, practice of chasing every experimental flight with airplanes.
walt williams from edwards highly placed in the administration in those days thought we should chase al shepard's flight just because it was always done. so wally schirra and i were given some air force airplanes, f-102s, to chase al's flight. we orbited and we couldn't stay close to the pad. because it's a lot of unknowns and dangers in those days we didn't quite know how to cope with. wally and i were circling the pad listening to the count, and then -- but at some distance, maybe three miles away, and al took off, going straight up. wally and i never saw a thing. you can't chase a red stone going straight up in a 102. so all we did was fly circles, and we came down and sort of said to each other, what happened? >> it's pretty well known by now, but let's go back over the
background of where you were for john glenn's flight and what you did that made a little history. >> yes. well, i was john's backup, and part of that job was to be in the blockhouse during the count, and that's where i was, and i was taking care of all of the commune kags communications fro launch people, and the launch complex to john. and so i was told the only one who would be able to communicate with john in that period from t-minus 18 seconds to liftoff. that's when it occurred to me that this fellow named john glenn, in order to have a successful flight, was going to have to put under his belt more speed than we had ever given a human before.
speed was the essence. get the speed and if it were in the right direction, he had orbital flight licked, and you know, godspeed is something you hear all the time, but speed was very, very important to john and it just came to me, godspeed john glenn. and i think the fact that he -- his name is two short syllables made it ring a little better. anyway, somewhere in the count between ten and zero i said, godspeed john glenn, and it was a salute to him, but there was a feeling, i think, in me at the time that it could be viewed as a plea to whatever
higher power to, you know, to make this flight a success. and i would suggest that nobody can tell me that that plea didn't work. because the flight did. >> worked not once, but twice, because nasa made special arrangements when you and john flew the second time. can you tell us about that? >> well, yeah, but i will also tell you that both of these pleas, godspeed john glenn, he didn't hear. and i just recently learned this. until after the launch. i thought he heard them both. when i said them. but that wasn't the way it happened. couldn't say the same thing on the shuttle flight because it's not a solo flight. so i thought it appropriate to add a good luck to the commander and crew of the shuttle, and
once again, godspeed john glenn. that statement has had endurance that surprises me. >> perhaps with good reason. well, let's go back now to your flights. how did you get to fly ma-7, april roar ra, instead of wally? >> no, no, it was deke, first of all. >> oh, deke. that's right. >> deke was assigned the flight. >> yeah, okay. >> let's rephrase the question. shall we? >> well, okay. the flight after john's, which was ma-6 was ma-7 and deke slayton was assigned that flight. on the centrifuge during the training period for that flight, deke had an anomaly in his heart which in convention the medical wisdom of that time was considered disqualifying.
we recognize now that it was no more serious than a hiccup, but deke was scratched and he wouldn't fly again for a long time. until apollo soyuz. it was a destructive thing for deke. wally was his backup and by rights should have gotten the flight, but walt williams, again, i think -- i don't know who made the decision, but it was a nasa decision that since i had such an intimate relationship with the ma-6, getting john ready to go, that i was better prepared to take the next flight than wally was, the standby. that was very destructive to wally, too, and we've survived that. but he was angry.
and with reason. anyway, i got the flight, and wally became not only backup as he had been for deke but my backup, and he got the flight following. >> and you called the flight, or called the spacecraft "aurora." what's in a name? where did you get a name like that? >> well, there's some popular disagreement about that. i named it "aurora" because i saw it as a celestial event, and the aurora borealis is a celestial event. i like the sound of it and the celestial significance. first of all, let's go into seven. al shepard started that with freedom 7. and the press caught that and said, isn't that nice of al to name his capsule something 7 in honor or the seven astronauts, his buddies? everybody believed that.
the fact of that matter is that he named it seven because it was capsule number seven off the line. but the people didn't know that. since everybody wanted to match al's largess, gus had liberty bell 7 and john had friendship 7. i had to do something with 7 so it was "aurora 7." people on the front range, wasn't that nice of scott to name his capsule "aurora 7" for the fact he was born and raised in a house in boulder on the corner of aurora and 7th street? so i give you the real reason behind "aurora," but people from boulder don't believe it. >> did you run into any problems in flight, or was it a nominal flight up to the bitter end?
>> oh, boy, sure. there were problems in all of those flights. i had one that's most famous for overshooting by 250 yards. 250 miles. i had the record for overshooting the target for a long time until some cosmonauts came along some years later and missed theirs by 1,500 miles. but there was an overshoot that caused a lot of dismay in the control center. and that was, if you talk to chris craft about that, failure of the man. if you talk to me about it, it's a failure of the machine. where the truth is, i don't know, but -- >> you'll never have a better opportunity to express your point of view than right now, scott. why don't you grab it and run with it? right after that phone call. >> yeah, okay.
>> ready to pick it up again. you just reached that point when you said chris craft and some of his controllers were not happy. i said, scott, you'll never have a better time than right now to tell your side of that story. >> yeah, well, part of that difficulty came from mismanagement of my fuel system. which caused a great concern on the ground because i was ahead of my fuel consumption line. that was not good, and i didn't like that any better than anybody else. however, there were other failures that exacerbated the effect of low fuel, and when you get right down to the other problem with the flight, which directly caused the overshoot, there were three failures that were all additive. first of all, the retrorockets
were slightly under thrust. that may be a minimal influence on the overshoot. they were late because of an attitude instrument failure which really had not been discovered. i didn't -- there was no check in the flight plan. maybe there should have been, but we didn't expect that, and remember, we're learning. anyway, the yaw indicator was bad. i think all the attitude instruments were faulty. when it came time for retrofire, i had to cage those gyros and fly manually out the window altitudes i thought were right. pitch is no problem. you can see that easily in the
horizon. roll doesn't enter into it but yaw is very difficult to see without spending a lot of time tracking your progress. and i didn't to that. i didn't do that. i was -- probably would have done that had i not been so fascinated by the discovery that john glenns were not fire flies but pieces of frost. major discovery, i thought. in any event, all of these things added to an overshoot. the retrorockets were not pointed in the right direction because i was not pointed in the right direction. i attribute that to instrument failure, and there is some disagreement about that. >> let me go back over one element of that that you mentioned. that is the fireflies from john's flight.
because we should explain more precisely what you mean. john saw something out the window. would you explain? >> yeah. it's hard to realize that we didn't know for sure at that time whether or not there were living critters out there at 150 miles altitude because john said, they're fireflies. he called them that. we didn't know if something like that existed. that's a good indicator of the state of our ignorance in many things at that time in the space program. turned out as i was stowing equipment, banging the hatch on the side of the capsule just before retrofire, the fireflies started flying past the window, and i could make more fly by by banging the hatch, and it was little pieces of frost in the
illuminated by the sun, behind me at this time, at sunrise. and they were just little ice crystals. and i figured, hooray! we know the answer to that question. it was a moving time for me. >> in retrospect, what do you think now as you think back on zero-g and space flight in general, as you experienced it? >> you have to realize that my experience with zero-g, although transcending and more fun than i can tell you about, was in the light of current space flight accomplishments very brief, but it's the nicest thing that ever
happened to me, and i can't believe that i wouldn't enjoy it just as much for a more prolonged period. the zero-g sensation and the visual sensation of space flight are transcending experiences, and i wish everybody could have them. >> you could certainly understand why john wanted to go up there for the longer flight, can't you? would you have taken the same opportunity? >> oh, sure, but it was not offered me. that is the fact of the matter. i, as a matter of fact, am questioned frequently about about this, would you do it? and one of the answers is tongue in cheek, but it is also partly true. i'm not old enough.
>> you had plenty of time after landing when you were down in the ocean, you had plenty of time to think about the mission. i wonder, what were your thoughts during that period of time while you were waiting to be picked up after your flight? >> i had uninterrupted time. when i say uninterrupted time, most everybody else who had gotten back was subjected immediately to pressing questions and large debriefing team. and they don't have much time, as much as i did, for introspection and reflection on the events of the past five hours. i treasured that. the only living critter i had around for a long time was a gold-colored fish that had taken up residence under my life raft in the shade of the life raft.
and i remember contemplating the marvelous experience and enjoying time to reflect on it. >> you know, in space, as you've just described it, you were quite concerned with the effects of being there and figuring out what was really going on. do you think you were really effective at that time in explaining those effects? and of course, in more recent years, i'm looking at the fact as the space flight continued, television became an aid, people can now share the flights ad nauseam almost. but back then, it was all in your hands. we couldn't see, we couldn't hear. you were our eyes and ears. do you think you were effective in what was going on in space around you? >> all i can tell you is i hope
so but that's another question that must be asked others. i tried to do that, but it is -- it is difficult, i think, to describe all of the sensations of space flight. it was a new concept then. never before done. people understand it better now because they've lived with it all these years but not then. >> you were also the first to propose a neutral buoyancy tank. i understand that with your navy background. using water to stimulate zero-g. when you came up with that suggestion, how did nasa receive that idea at first? >> well, i don't think there was any objection. the idea bore fruit in many, many different ways.
it required the expenditure of a lot of money to build the neutral buoyancy simulator but it has paid off in training people for eva. it's irreplaceable. >> and thoroughly one of the tools of nasa today. have you had a chance to operate within that neutral tank at all in recent years? >> no. i was at the tank in houston, but i didn't get in the water but have i experienced doing that in the open ocean. with sea lab. >> that kind of brings us right back to where we started. sometime back you had described, if you will, your acquaintance, the working relationship with cousteau. so right now, you moved out of the realm of astronaut, let's move to transition. first of all, what you did after your flight became fairly common knowledge, and i think you were privy to the fact that you
probably would not fly again. is that right? >> well, you know, not at the time of my choice. i got really fascinated with this idea that i discussed with cousteau and then george bond of transferring technology to the ocean. and i did that, or i tried to do that, with sea-lev one then i broke my arm and couldn't make that dive. but went back to polish that idea off in sea-lab two, and that was another transcending experience for me. >> you had several considerations before you left nasa. didn't you? you had other jobs in the interim there before you left nasa? >> oh, yeah, sure, and part of it was in the development of that neutral buoyancy simulator. i really by that time became